Dare to Be Personal

by Catherine Ann Jones

When television producer, Martha Williamson, asked me to write for her hit series, Touched by an Angel, I said I preferred to make up my original stories. So she asked me to make up a few and pitch them to her. She told me that if she did not like any of my stories, she would give me a story to write. I pitched nine original stories, and the one she chose for me to write first was the only one of the nine that was inspired by an incident from my own life. I was psychic as a child and would often tune out and listen to inner music, so my teacher thought I might be hard of hearing. This diagnosis began a series of doctors and examinations to find out what was wrong with me. Of course, nothing was wrong. I was simply creatively entering into my own world. So this was the starting point for what became the episode, A Joyful Noise. It is about a little girl who hears angels singing and is sent to a psychiatrist to rid her of her voices. In the end, it is the psychiatrist who is changed by the little girl and her angels. Olympia Dukakis plays an archangel in this episode. This was one of Oprah’s favorites -- she once screened a clip on her weekly television show. So, the moral is: dare to be personal.

What is the emotional personal thread from your own life which can be woven into your story? Answer this, and you will have the key to meaning for yourself as the writer as well as for the audience, who will identify with your feeling. It is no coincidence that the greatest novels and plays are often inspired by the author’s own family background. Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day Journey into Night, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, or Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel are all examples of this form of inspiration. Consider fiction no more than disguised autobiography. It need not be literally autobiographical, of course, just emotional autobiographical.

Subjectivity is necessary for all great art. Story is no exception. I will go on record and say that subjective point of view from the writer as well as the subjective response of reader or audience is the most important aspect of any book or movie. This is why sometimes our favorite movies or books are not classics, but simply something we strongly identify with. They hit a nerve. A disaster film depicting a great love story, Titanic became the best selling movie of all time (before James Cameron went animation on us). One of my favorites is Anne of Green Gables about a little girl with too much imagination. Ask yourself what is your favorite book or movie, the one you like to return to, and it may surprise you that it may not be a great classic, but simply the book or movie you love. Craft without art: it works but who cares? The audience must care. Caring sells tickets. We care by identifying with the main character, something within must emotionally connect to our own life.

Once again, dare to be personal.

Catherine Ann Jones has played major roles in over fifty productions on and off-Broadway, as well as television (Great Performances, etc.) and film. Disappointed by the lack of good roles for women, she wrote a play about Virginia Woolf (On the Edge) which won a National Endowment for the Arts Award. Ten of her plays, including Calamity Jane (both play and musical) and The Women of Cedar Creek, have won several awards and are produced both in and out of New York. Her films include The Christmas Wife (Jason Robards & Julie Harris), Unlikely Angel (Dolly Parton), Angel Passing (Hume Cronyn & Teresa Wright) which played at Sundance and went on to garner fifteen awards here and abroad, and also the popular TV series, Touched by an Angel.  A Fulbright Scholar to India, she has taught writing at The New School University, University of Southern California, Pacifica Graduate Institute, and the Esalen and Omega Institutes. Ms. Jones is often invited as a keynote speaker to various conferences as Women, Wealth, & Wisdom Conference at UCLA. Ms. Jones lives in Ojai, California, leads The Way of Story and Heal Yourself with Writing workshops throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Her book The Way of Story: the craft & soul of writing is used by many schools, including NYU writing programs. For her workshop schedule, online courses, blog, and story/script consultant service please visit www.wayofstory.com.